St. Philip Lutheran Church
26 February 2023 + Lent 1a
Rev. Josh Evans
It had to be one of the most difficult and dangerous journeys I ever made. In hindsight, I probably should’ve just canceled.
In the winter of 2017, I was in the middle of my year-long seminary internship in Omaha, Nebraska. In February of that year, just before Lent, I decided to sign up for a spiritual retreat hosted by the Nebraska Synod.
Ordinarily, the drive from Omaha to Grand Island is not a particularly difficult one, consisting mostly of a trip straight down I-80, and just over two hours long. That particular weekend, however, snow was forecasted. But I’m from the Midwest. I know how to drive in the snow. No big deal.
Well, the snow storm was so bad, in fact, that it shut down the interstate, and all traffic was rerouted to a rural country highway with one lane in each direction. The cars that were out were minimal, since most people (not me) had the good sense to stay home.
Despite my excruciatingly slow speed and white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel, it felt like my ’95 Jeep Cherokee with two-wheel drive was competing – and poorly – in a sort of figure skating competition.
At one point, my vehicle started sliding into the lane of oncoming traffic, where of course I spotted none other than the headlights of a semi truck through the snowy horizon.
I swore I was about to meet Jesus, and my spiritual “retreat” was about to get a lot more real…and permanent.
Journeys are not always comfortable. They’re certainly not without their hiccups or road bumps…or white-out blizzard conditions.
Every year, on the First Sunday in Lent, Jesus’s own journey in the wilderness stands at the beginning of our journey through this season of Lenten wilderness.
I’ve always appreciated this story because it helps to remind us that Jesus was fully human. Sometimes, I think we forget that part, and we lose sight of what exactly that means because we know the bigger picture and the rest of the story.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus was 100% fully human.
Here, in the wilderness, in the prelude to his public ministry, Jesus’s own journey was just beginning. And I have to wonder if he thought it was also going to end, right then and there. Hungry. Alone. Scared. Questioning his purpose.
Jesus‘s journey was one of struggle.
There’s great comfort in that for me. It’s comforting and reassuring to know that we are not alone when our own journeys take unpredictable detours, or when we wind up aimlessly lost in the wilderness, because Jesus has been there, too.
Journeys are often unpredictable and even scary.
When I graduated from high school and packed up my entire life and everything I had ever known to move from home in Michigan to college in the suburbs of Chicago, I thought I knew where that journey would lead: I was going to graduate and go back to a Lutheran high school somewhere to teach English.
Needless to say, that is not how the journey ended up. There were a few hiccups along the way, to put it mildly, and in the years following graduation, I felt more than a little lost.
Even so, for as lost and aimless as I felt in those last waning months of college and into my newly-graduated life, I eventually wound up where I am today.
Every meandering detour, every road bump, every seeming dead end, all led me on a journey that helped me reimagine what Christianity could be – and that I could live my fully authentic self at the same time.
My journey also reawakened my call to pastoral ministry and led me to congregations in Milwaukee and Chicagoland, and with everything I’ve experienced so far, I have to trust that there is still more to my journey.
For all that has been, the ups and the downs and the in-betweens, I wouldn’t trade any of it because it is all a part of who I am and where I am today.
I want to be perfectly clear that it’s not to say that “everything happens for a reason” because I don’t believe that to be true for one second. But, I do believe that purpose can be found and meaning can be made in everything that happens. That’s a crucial distinction.
In the ups and downs and detours of our journeys, there is purpose and meaning.
The fully human Jesus struggled mightily in his wilderness temptations. But at the end of the journey, and even at its lowest points, he knew, somehow, despite what had to feel like all evidence to the contrary, God still was with him.
In the most intense moments of his wilderness journey, Jesus drew from the well of his faith and spiritual ancestors. He drew strength from those resources, and they in turn enabled him to forge ahead.
And, of course, we know that that wilderness was only the beginning of Jesus’s story.
When I did finally arrive in Grand Island, both Jeep Cherokee and my own life intact, I think the retreat facilitators were just as surprised as I was, since so many others who had previously registered were wise enough to cancel.
But I was stubborn, along with the few others who braved the snowy winter weather with me.
And the spiritual renewal I experienced and the resources I gleaned during that short overnight retreat have given me a deep reservoir that I have drawn from many times since.
That’s not to say you should foolishly risk your life driving through a snowstorm…
But it does remind us that difficult journeys – literal or otherwise – can and do arrive at grace-filled destinations.
A South African freedom song that comes out of the anti-apartheid movement puts it this way, in one English translation:
Come walk with us,
the journey is long.
Come walk with us,
the journey is long.
Friends, we stand on the cusp of another Lenten journey. Some of you may have taken on more intentional spiritual practices as a part of this season. Some may have given up some things in order to make room for others.
However you move through these forty days, do so in a way that is meaningful and life-giving for you, to give you strength for the journey:
Through the wilderness of Lent,
to the sorrow of the garden,
to the anguish of the cross,
to the uncertainty of the empty tomb…
…and, ultimately, to the joy of the resurrection and new life, of God‘s decisive victory over all of the forces that seek to deny us of God’s love.
The journey is long, but we walk together.
Friends, our journey is not over. My journey is not over, and your journey is not over.
As you look ahead to the future, perhaps with sadness, or fear, or uncertainty, first look back at where you have been. Draw strength from those moments. Remember God‘s faithfulness. Remember the faithfulness of God made known in community.
Let those things fill you up, and then turn back around and move forward boldly and bravely and hopefully into the future.
Draw from your well when you need it, and know that the well will never run dry, because God’s faithfulness is never-ending and God’s mercies are surely new every morning.
The journey is long, but we are on the way together, with a God who has been there too and is with us always.